Christiania’s Pusher Street has been through a rough summer. During June and July police carried out a series of raids, removing booths and arresting a number of suspected drug dealers.
While the criminal drug-dealing networks tried to rebuild their business in August, the self-proclaimed ‘Freetown’ was once again plunged into chaos when a man with ties to Pusher Street shot two police officers and a civilian outside Christiania.
The shooting shocked many, including Christiania residents and the police. Acknowledging that Pusher Street had become a hub for hardened criminals in recent years, Christiania residents tore down the remaining booths in Pusher Street and vowed to clear the street of organized crime.
Two months on, and the official line from Christiania is that the illegal market is under control. But walking down Pusher Street, it’s clear that the cannabis trade is still flourishing, with pushers selling their merchandise openly to passer-bys.
Christiania: Pusher Street is under control
When The Murmur visited Christiania in early September, there was a sense of optimism. Many Christiania residents had taken time off work to clear the booths from Pusher Street, while others occupied central squares to prevent the return of the criminal gangs.
In a press release, Christiania pleaded for help from both politicians and cannabis users.
“Christiania cannot take responsibility for housing all of Denmark’s hash trade,” they wrote. “We can remove them, but we cannot be sure that they won’t return. We need all of Denmark’s help to do so. If you want to support Christiania, don’t buy your hash there.”
The message has since changed. Instead of banishing the trade altogether, the ambition is now to limit it and to return to the days were the trade was restricted to locals selling small amounts.
Kirsten Larsen, who works for Christiania’s press group, is content with the current situation in Pusher Street two months after the shooting.
“I believe it’s working well. We’ve managed to get rid of the booths and everyone in Christiania and Pusher Street agree that they’re not going up again anytime soon. But we’re never going to get completely rid of the cannabis market,” she says.
“The open hash market is now under control. When you walk down Pusher Street today, it is obvious that the market has been limited. At the same time, we’ve gotten rid of the pushers who come from outside of Christiania.”
Police: Not much has changed
Non-resident dealers have long been an issue in Christiania, with many residents holding them responsible for the gradual brutalization of the community around Pusher Street in recent years. The suspected gunman in the August shooting was not a Christiania resident.
But Dannie Rise, head of Task Force Pusher Street – the special police unit tasked with handling Pusher Street – says the removal of the booths has not altered the makeup of the dealers operating on Pusher Street.
“As far as we can tell, it is the exact same people who are dealing cannabis in Christiania today as it was three months ago. And they are standing in the exact same places as they did before. The main difference is that they are sitting on benches rather than behind booths and military netting,” he says.
Rise fears that the current low-key market is a temporary situation.
“We’ve seen this before. As we approach the cold season, the pushers will want shelter. It may start as a parasol, but then they’ll want a heater, and a chair, and before you know it, we’ll be back to square one,” he says.
Self-discipline and dialogue
Larsen is more optimistic, however, and argues that Christiania residents are now in a better situation to keep Pusher Street under control through dialogue and self-discipline.
“It’s the way we’ve done it for years. We have a continuous dialogue with Pusher Street, and we expect it to work that way in the future,” she says.
She explains that Pusher Street has had a number of rules in place for years, such as a code of conduct that prohibits any use or sale of hard drugs.
Another important rule prohibits non-residents from selling cannabis in Pusher Street, though it is a rule that continues to be flouted. Larsen acknowledges that Christiania has contributed to the problem.
“We must admit that the rules for Pusher Street have been relaxed over the years. For years, the rules required that you had to have been a resident in Christiania for three years, before you could start selling. That bar was gradually lowered as more people disappeared from the street and into prison. At the same time, we allowed the dealers to start wearing masks. All that made it harder to maintain the self-discipline in Pusher Street,” she explains.
Police to blame
Nonetheless, Larsen believes the police’s pressure on the pushers has been the driving force in hardening the community around Pusher Street.
“The pressure on the pushers and the imprisonment of many of the old guard created room for a new group of hardboiled people, who have carved out a place for themselves. That’s the reason we have seen the pushers become more brutal in recent years,” she says.
Larsen refers to many raids against the dealers in Pusher Street in the last decade. In 2004, hundreds of police officers moved into Christiania, accompanied by bulldozers, to clear Pusher Street of the cannabis trade. They tore down the booths and arrested hundreds of people with ties to the cannabis trade – many of them Christiania residents.
Despite regular police raids between 2004 to 2009 the market remained.
According to Larsen, the many arrests and the regular raids on Pusher Street ended up fragmenting the cannabis market in Copenhagen, which until then had largely been confined to Christiania. New criminal enterprises took advantage of the volatility to enter the market, both in Pusher Street and across Copenhagen.
From 2008, rivalries between different crime factions over control of the cannabis market escalated and resulted in shootings in both Christiania and the rest of Copenhagen until 2012.
Impossible to rein pushers in
Nonetheless, Rise doesn’t believe that Christiania will ever be able to control the cannabis market.
“They cannot control the organised crime that inevitably follows the cannabis market and they cannot control the people who are only there to make money,” he says.
Rise points to the fact that the cannabis market in Pusher Street has a turnover of more than one billion kroner a year.
“There have been many attempts to romanticize the cannabis trade. But it is not just a couple of guys with a lump of hash in their pockets. Those days are long gone. When you have something as lucrative as the cannabis market, it is naïve to believe that it can ever just be a couple of locals who sell out of their pockets to earn a decent living and support Christiania,” he says.
Several Christiania residents The Murmur spoke to share Rise’s opinion.
“The self-discipline in Pusher Street has failed. When I walk down Pusher Street I still see a few familiar faces – but more and more of the dealers are obviously not residents,” says a long time Christiania resident, who prefers to stay anonymous.
Another resident, who also speaks under the condition of anonymity, says it more polemically:
“We have tried to keep it under some kind of control for years, but Pusher Street has slowly slipped completely of our hands. We cannot control it. It’s a lost cause,” he says and concludes:
“It is like a tumour on Christiania. A tumour that must be removed.” M